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U. S. Military Ball in Huntsville, Alabama
from Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1864
A ball was held by the
noncommissioned officers and privates of the 15th Army Corps of the Union
The newspaper reported that:
Since the occupation of this place by General Logan, the soldiers have made
many friends, and a few evenings since they gave a ball, at which a
considerable number of ladies were present. The ball was well conducted and
as full of enjoyment as any affair of the kind ever given in this place.
The sketch gives the ‘Virginia Reel,’ danced with energy, and often
performed as many as seven or eight times during the evening. General Logan
attended the ball for a short time, and expressed himself pleased to see the
quiet respect that was everywhere shown to the gentler sex by their brave
Dancing was enjoyed by almost everyone in America during the Civil War –
North and South, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural. During the
1860s, a ball was one way to forget, at least for an evening, the "fiery
trial" of the Civil War.
Unlike modem dancing that is couple-oriented, dancing in the mid-Victorian
era was much more "social". Most dances were done in the “open position”
(couple standing side-by-side) in formations of circles, squares or lines,
with the couple interacting with other couples. “Closed position” dances
like the waltz and polka were considered scandalous in some communities and
were generally done by young people and the urban fashionable upper classes.
It was considered ill-mannered to dance with the same partner all evening.
Everyone at a ball had a social duty to mingle and to ensure that everyone
else had a pleasant time. Although there were strict rules of behavior, they
tended to add an agreeable degree of formality and decorum that has been
lost in today's world. The Victorian Dance Ensemble is dedicated to
recreating the grace and beauty of this bygone era.
Since there are no films of 1860s dancing, no one knows exactly how dances
were performed. The Victorian Dance Ensemble has recreated its dances from a
variety of sources, including period dance manuals, dance master's hand
written notes, diaries and letters, and even drawings of dances. It is clear
from primary sources that there was considerable variation in dancing, based
on social class, urban or rural residence, age of dancers, geographic area,
ethnic group, and whether the dancers took professional dance lessons.
The dances performed and taught by the Ensemble are its interpretation of
the dances based on members’ research. Other dancers may have different
interpretations and this is quite in keeping with the practice of the
period. Several dance manuals and other sources often note that there are
variations of particular dances. Etiquette of the time period, however,
dictated that dancers should always follow the directions of the dance
master. If you attended a ball and a dance was performed in a different
manner than you were used to, you were expected to follow the dance master’s
Dancing has relevance to the military side of the era since dancing could
also be considered the first “drill” for young men who would become soldiers
during the Civil War. The formation dances taught right from left, how to
keep marching time, how to maneuver in a formation, and the importance of
Never forget that ladies are to be first cared for, to have the best
seats, the places of distinction, and are entitled in all cases to your
No young lady should go to a ball, without the protection of a married lady,
or an elderly gentleman.
The customary honors of a bow and courtesy should be given at the
commencement and conclusion of each dance.
After dancing, a gentleman should invariably conduct a lady to a seat,
unless she otherwise desires: and in fact, a lady should not be unattended,
at any time in a public assembly.
If you accompany your wife to a dancing party, be careful not to dance with
her, except perhaps for the first set.
A gentleman should not address a lady unless he has been properly
In inviting a lady to dance, the words, "Will you honor me with your hand .
. ." are used more now than "Will you give me the pleasure of dancing . .
Certain persons are appointed to act as floor managers . . . if you are
entirely a stranger, it is to them you must apply for a partner.
Be very careful how you refuse to dance with a gentleman. A prior engagement
will, of course, excuse you but if you plead fatigue, do not dance the set
A gentleman introduced to a lady by a floor manager . . . should not be
refused by the lady if she is not already engaged, for her refusal would be
a breach of good manners.
Dance quietly, do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro,
dance only from the hips downwards.
Lead a lady as lightly as you would tread a measure with a spirit of
The fall of a couple is not a frequent occurrence in a ball room, but when
it does happen it is almost always the man's fault. Girls take much more
naturally to the graceful movements of the dance, and are, besides, more
often taught in childhood than their brothers.
Never remain in a ballroom until all of the company have left, or even until
the last set. It is ill bred, and looks as if you are unaccustomed to such
pleasures, and so desirous to prolong each one. Leave while there are two or
three sets to be danced.
It is best to carry two pairs of gloves, as in contact with dark dresses, or
in handling refreshments, you may soil a pair, and thus will be under the
necessity of offering your hand covered in a soiled glove to some partner.
You can slip unperceived from the room, change the soiled for a fresh pair,
and then avoid that mortification.
Quotes from various manuals cited on the Resource page.
Introductions were very important to class conscious nineteenth century
people. They generally did not mix socially with other people much above or
below their social class and never with anyone with whom they had not been
formally introduced. A formal social introduction was made when one of your
friends introduced you to a new person, with your permission (“May I
introduce?”; “May I present?”). Once formally introduced, you could
recognize and greet each other in public, you could visit the other person’s
home, you could request assistance from the other person, and, most
importantly for our purposes, a gentleman could ask a lady to dance. At a
Ball, there was also an introduction merely for the purpose of dancing,
which carried none of the social obligations of a formal introduction. There
were three basic types of Balls during the mid nineteenth century. The type
of Ball dictated the procedure for asking a lady to dance.
Private Balls were invitation only affairs, perhaps limited to family
and close friends, social, fraternal or political organization members, or
business, trade or craft members. At such an event, all were considered to
be equal and fit company. Any man could ask any woman to dance, even if not
formally introduced (although as a practical matter, most people were
formally introduced at such events). If not otherwise engaged or fatigued,
the woman should accept. To decline an invitation because the lady found the
man “unacceptable” for some reason would be an insult to the host or hostess
because it would imply that a man who was not a gentleman had been invited
to the Ball. Etiquette books advised a lady to dance with an “unacceptable”
gentleman so as not to embarrass the host or hostess, or the “gentleman” by
drawing attention to him for being rejected.
Public Balls were open to anyone with the price of a ticket. Such
Balls were common for raising money for various worthy causes and during the
Civil War were widely used to support the war effort, both North and South.
At such a Ball, if a gentleman had been formally introduced to a lady
(either at the Ball or previously) he could ask her to dance. If a gentleman
did not know a lady, he had two options to obtain a dance. If he knew
someone who knew the lady, he could ask that person to discretely inquire if
the lady would be amenable to a dance. He could then be introduced either
formally or for a dance. If he was a complete “stranger” (the term used in
etiquette books), he would apply to a Floor Manager for a partner. Floor
Managers assisted the Dance Master in conducting the Ball and in particular
arranging sets with the proper number of dancers. The Floor Manager would
quickly “size-up” the man based on his demeanor, clothing and language, and
locate a suitable partner of the appropriate class. The man would then be
introduced to the lady for the purpose of dancing only. Again, a lady was
expected to accept such an invitation to dance unless she already had a
partner or was fatigued.
Master-Servant Balls were an old European tradition, where the lord
of the manor held a Ball for his servants and tenants (and perhaps local
townspeople). Some American employers continued the tradition of such dances
for their agricultural and industrial workers. Such Balls, therefore,
brought together a variety of social classes. Works of fiction (see Dickens
and Austen), however, give the impression that such Balls were the great
melting pot of society, where the lord danced with the scullery maid. In all
likelihood, even though everyone was in the same room, there was probably
little intermingling of the social classes. At such events, a variation of
the Private Ball rule applies. Any man could ask any woman, but modified so
that only “superiors” could ask “inferiors” to dance but not vice versa.
Thus, the lord of the manor could ask the scullery maid to dance but the
stable boy may not ask the lady of the house out onto the dance floor. The
same rule would apply at a Military Ball involving a combination of
officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted men, and their ladies. A
“superior” may ask an “inferior’s” lady to dance but not vice versa, unless
invited to do so by the superior. (Note: In egalitarian America, all females
were ladies. Traditionally in the British Army, however, officers had
ladies, noncoms had wives and enlisted men had “women.”)
Invitations to dance were governed by strict rules, although there appear to
be local variations. A universal rule is ladies did not invite gentlemen to
dance. If they wished to dance with someone in particular, they told a
friend, usually a male. The friend then discretely suggested to the
gentleman that he ask the lady to dance. A gentleman desiring to dance with
a married lady usually asked her husband first before asking the lady. Upon
approaching a lady to ask for a dance, a gentleman bows and the lady
acknowledges his greeting with a curtsey if standing or a nod if seated. A
married lady need not rise from a seat to greet a gentleman, unless the man
is considerably “superior” in social rank (such as a high ranking
politician, military officer, or clergyman, a guest of honor or other
important personage). Married ladies may offer their hand but generally the
more public the event the less hand shaking. Unmarried young ladies do rise
to greet all gentlemen but they do not offer their hand. At some stage in
life, older unmarried ladies begin to obey the married lady rules (at this
point she would be recognized as a “spinster”).
In asking for a dance, the gentleman always requests “the honor of a dance.”
Etiquette books often point out the former tradition of asking for “the
pleasure of a dance” was becoming less common. It can probably be assumed
that in less sophisticated circles the older invitation was still in use.
The gentleman should escort the lady onto the dance floor and return her to
her seat (or wherever she desires) after the dance and thank her for the
Hand kissing is not mentioned in Civil War period etiquette books and,
therefore, was probably not done. An assumption can be made that if it was
done the rules would have been specified in such books (as they are in later
“Round dances” (i.e., closed position waltzes and polkas) were
considered scandalous in much of small town America during the Civil War.
The following article was originally published in the Richmond Whig on
January 15, 1863 and reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer of January 23,
1863. It was quite common in the mid nineteenth century for newspapers to
reprint articles from other newspapers. This article expresses much of the
sentiment of the older generation in regard to “modern” dances of the
younger generation of almost any era.
A Lay Sermon on Dancing
Not only are dancing and junketing in bad taste at such a time as the
present, but they are inhumanly disrespectful and foolish. If a father or a
brother lay in mortal peril in an upper chamber, would it not be brutal in
his children to be “cutting the pigeon wing” below stairs? Hundreds and
hundreds of fathers and brothers are languishing in the hospitals of this
very city, and thousands upon thousands of fathers, sons, husbands and
lovers are exposing their lives in the field to save us from subjugation;
and here we are, protected by the living wall of their dauntless breasts,
kicking up our heels and tripping on the light fantastic toe in the most
joyous manner. This is not the way to show a decent respect or a merely
human sympathy for our suffering defenders. This is not the temper which
will or ought to save a people from conquest.
Far be it from us to arouse needless fears or to repress innocent
amusements. Properly guarded, dancing is a delightful, healthful
pastime—infinitely better than the dry and dreary reunions where only
conversations, half scandal and whole nonsense, is allowed. But if we must
dance, let us confine ourselves to the old fashioned, decent and respectable
dances—the cotillion and the like. Heaven save us from the “round dances,”
as they are called—the loathsome products of a prurient French taste. We
regret extremely to hear that these “round dances” are becoming all the rage
at fashionable parties and at the “big hops” at the great hotels. Words
cannot express our detestation and abhorrence of these dances. They ought
not to be tolerated in the Confederacy. The girl who dances them might to
take “Hamlet’s” advice to “Ophelia,” “Get thee to a nunnery.” They will do
well enough for the romping female animals of Yankee land, but they ought to
be scouted by every pure-minded and refined Southern lady.
We are getting corrupt too fast. What with cheating, extortion, drinking and
dancing the round dances, we are leaping into the foul depths of Washington
degradation at a single bound. If we must become rotten, let us rot a little
less rapid. Let us taboo and kick out of respectable circles immodest and
impure dances and them that dance them. If not, if we prefer to rush into
the fashionable depravity of the European and Yankee capitals, let us by all
means do it with an impetuosity and absolute license that will in some sort
redeem our depravity. Let us have “the German” in our churches after morning
service, let us introduce the “Cancan” into our private drawing rooms, and
have “model artist” exhibitions every night in the parlors of the Exchange
and Spottswood [Hotels].
Cadet Hop at West Point
Harper's Weekly, September 3, 1859
This engraving of a cadet
“Hop” was based on a sketch by Winslow Homer. It depicts one of the dances
held at the U. S. Military Academy, when the students are in a summer
encampment on the plain to learn about army life in the field. Cadets
received instruction from professional dance masters and are shown dancing
in the new (and scandalous) closed position. The newspaper reported that:
Happily the rigors of
military etiquette are mitigated thrice a week by balls or hops, which are
given by the cadets to their friends and guests at Cozzens’s Hotel and
elsewhere in the neighborhood. These gay parties are justly famed among the
fair sex; for better and more indefatigable dancers than the cadets are not
to be found even in New York. Pretty girls who go to West Point to spend a
few days in the bracing air, and enjoy the lovely Hudson scenery, invariably
declare that they never enjoyed any ball in their life so much as the Cadet
Hops. The following gentlemen are the managers of the hops, and to them our
artist desires to return thanks for the attention paid him on his
professional visit: Nicholas Bowen, John R. B. Burtwell, Frank Huger,
Wm. G. Jones, Josiah H. Kellog, Wesley Merritt, Horace Porter,
S. Dodson Ramseur, John Adair, Nathaniel R. Chambliss, Campbell C.
Emory, Charles E. Hazlett, William M’K. Leoser, Henry W.
During the Civil War those cadets served on both sides: Huger
commanded artillery units in Longstreet’s Corps. Merritt was
promoted from captain to brigadier just before Gettysburg and served in the
U.S. Army through the Spanish-American War. Ramseur became a
Confederate major general and was killed at Cedar Creek. Porter
served on Grant’s staff. Hazlett commanded the battery on Little
Round Top at Gettysburg and was killed by a sharpshooter.
Camp Dancing During the Civil War
An excerpt from Charles W.
Bardeen’s A Little Fifer’s War Diary describes as very “formal” dance
held in camp by soldiers. Charles enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts on July
21, 1862 at the age of 14 as a drummer. He found he was not good at
drumming and switched to playing the fife. In his book, Charles
intersperses his diary notations with post war comments. In the spring of
1864, while encamped at Brandy Station, he wrote the following item in his
diary for March 24 (boldface) and followed that notation with comments
concerning the event:
March 24. Pleasant.
Grand Ball. Went over and staid ‘till Supper. Did not dance. Got up in
good style for privates.
[Bardeen’s post war comments] What I especially remember of this
evening is the psychological effect of skirts. When it became known that
the officers were to give us the use of their building for this ball some of
the men sent home for various articles of women’s finery, including hoop
skirts then in vogue. The men who dressed themselves in these garment were
by no means the most feminine in the regiment, but the effect upon the rest
of us was to produce the impulse of protection. The Excelsior brigade had
not been invited, and toward midnight they attempted to force an entrance,
using long poles as battering rams against an end door. As they pushed in
and the fight began Jim McCrae happened to be walking on my arm, and I put
myself in front of him as inevitably as if he had been a girl fifteen years
old. But only for an instant. Jim was an Irishman of the Kilkenny type,
red-haired, freckled face, blue eyes, always good-natured but always
spoiling for a row. He swished his skirts out of the way, pulled up sleeves
showing arms as remarkable for their whiteness as for their strength, and
sailed into that Excelsior crowd with both fists. Only a few had got in and
they were soon thrust our(t) again and the door securely fastened. The
dance went on, and I think Jim and I finished the promenade, but the rest of
the night I had a sort of sub-consciousness that in spite of his skirts he
was quite able to take care of himself.
Stag Dance from Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1864
Our soldiers believe in the literal interpretation of the
dictum of the Wise Man that "there is a time to dance." But to put their
faith into works is not the easiest thing in the world, owing to the lack of
partners of the feminine persuasion. However, by imagining a bearded and
pantalooned fellow to be of "t'other kind," they succeed in getting up what
they call a "Stag Dance," which is better than none, as is shown by the
intense interest evinced by the spectators.
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